A photographer known for his images of the landscape and people of India, Raghubir Singh is considered the pioneer of colour photography in the country, being one of the first photographers to deviate from the monochromatic black-and-white images that were the norm in the mid-to-late twentieth century.
Singh was born in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and was exposed early to the Rajput and Mughal miniature traditions that have a history in the region and which informed his aesthetic choices. He enrolled at the Hindu College, New Delhi, but dropped out to pursue a career in the tea industry. In 1961, at age 19, he moved to Kolkata, where he developed an active interest in photography and began photographing the city. His first commercial break came in the mid 1960s, when Life magazine published an eight-page spread of his photographs of student unrest in India. Subsequently, he took on freelance assignments for publications including The New York Times, Stern and National Geographic, which allowed him to access rolls of colour film. Influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Singh took up documentary photography; however, unlike Cartier-Bresson, he incorporated colour in his work, which he considered vital to accurately depicting the cultural milieu of India. Singh moved to Hong Kong in 1976, and later Paris and New York, but frequently visited and photographed India.
A self-taught photographer, Singh used a handheld 35mm camera and shot using Kodachrome film rolls, recording the daily lives of working class people, festivities such as the Pushkar Mela in Rajasthan and the Kumbh Mela in Uttar Pradesh and scenes from performances, rituals and weddings. In addition to capturing what Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment,” Singh’s photographs reveal a further modernist sensibility that demonstrated his global influences and cosmopolitan outlook without exoticising the cultural symbolism of the images or lionising poverty and marginalism.
Over the course of his career he published fourteen photobooks, which were organised by a common thread, often geographically, (for example, Kashmir, Calcutta, Benares, Tamil Nadu, the Ganges) and thematically (including festivals such as the Kumbh Mela, places such the Grand Trunk Road, or culturally relevant objects such as the Ambassador car), demonstrating both the traditions as well as urbanisation in the country. The photographs collected in these books were accompanied by his writing which, in turn, derived from dialogue with individuals including historian RP Gupta, Satyajit Ray, and writers including RK Narayan and VS Naipaul.
Singh was awarded the Padma Shri in 1983. His work has been widely published and exhibited, most notably in a retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017–18. The opening of this retrospective was met with protests led by the artist and curator Jaishri Abichandani, who alleged Singh had sexually assaulted her in 1995. Singh’s photographs are also a part of the permanent collections of Tate Modern, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.
Singh died in 1999 in New York.
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